Browsing Archive February, 2007

Dave Williams Opens the Door

The biggest news is that we’ll be without lefty Dave Williams until at least May. That said, I’ll stick to the old saying “no news is good news”, and hope that there isn’t any more news at all from the Mets for the next nine days.

It’s kind of a shame, since Williams was penciled in to be the 2007 Darren Oliver and possibly have a chance to be the #5 starter. However, it’s not the end of the world, and he won’t be out for too long. If nothing else, it gives more spring training innings to the younger arms and cuts down the competition a bit. For those wondering why in the world Omar Minaya would sign scrap heap rejects such as Aaron Sele and Jorge Sosa, Williams’ back surgery is why — you just never know who is going to go down, and it can’t hurt to have some veteran depth.

In the end, this could be a blessing in disguise. First, we already have a pretty good idea of what Dave Williams can do: he can throw strikes for 2-3 innings out of the bullpen, and can serve as an acceptable to effective spot starter for about 5 innings. He proved last year that he could keep the Mets in a ballgame, most of the time, work quickly, and be fairly efficient with his pitches. Assuming he can pitch reasonably close to what he did last year, he’ll be perfect in the “Oliver Role”, and maybe a bit better because he has shown he can start when needed. In other words, Dave Williams is a known quantity (if unspectacular).

On the other hand, there are about a dozen question marks on the pitching staff, from whether youngsters such as Mike Pelfrey, Philip Humber, and Jason Vargas are ready for prime-time, to wondering if veterans such as Sele and Sosa have anything left, to what happens next with enigma Alay Soler. And we’re taking for granted that John Maine and Oliver Perez will continue to move forward after stellar postseason performances. Just as many question marks litter the bullpen — for example, where will Jon Adkins, Juan Padilla, and Ambiorix Burgos fit in? Will there be a funk thrower such as Steve Schmoll or Joe Smith? Does Clint Nageotte have anything left? The only way to find answers to these questions is to give all these guys innings, and not having Williams around means someone gets to throw a few more meaningful pitches.

Further, it means the Mets will be carrying north someone in Williams’ penciled-in spot of long relief / spot starting — who otherwise would not have made the team. Maybe it’s Sosa or Sele, or maybe it’s Jason Vargas. Maybe Schmoll is on the Opening Day roster to appease Willie Randolph’s desire for a sidewinder. And maybe, just maybe, that guy does something really special and the Mets have another strength on the pitching staff. By the beginning of June, both Dave Williams and Guillermo Mota should be ready to resume their roles on the Mets’ pitching staff. Wouldn’t it be a nice problem, at that time of year, to have too many valuable arms on the 25-man roster? Perhaps it would give the Mets flexibility to swing a deadline deal for that impact starter or position player they need to get them over the hump in the second half of the season.

The old saying “When one door closes, another one opens” is fitting for the injury to Williams in relation to the Mets’ pitching staff. Last year, the Mets — at the very last minute — chose to bring north two lefties, Darren Oliver and Pedro Feliciano. Victor Diaz was sent to Norfolk to clear roster space while Oliver and Feliciano fought it out in the first month of the season. It was assumed that one or the other would make the team as a LOOGY, and the other would be released or returned to the minors and Diaz or some other bat would come back up. Well, Diaz never did return, and we all know the story of the two lefties — each carved themself a niche deep into the Mets’ bullpen, remaining valuable assets throughout the year. If Diaz doesn’t get sent down, we might never have seen one of those two guys blossom in a Met uniform (Oliver, for example, made it clear that he was going to retire if he didn’t make the team). Similarly, closing the door on Williams until May/June opens the door of opportunity for someone else. Ideally, that person will do as Oliver and Feliciano did last year — seize the opportunity and fill a valuable role on the staff that otherwise would not have existed or been available.

Wow … I’m sounding quite the optimist today … spring training must be near …

Hope springs eternal in 9 days !


Spring Sleeper: Alay Soler

After failing miserably in his short stint in the big leagues in 2006, nearly everyone has written off Alay Soler as a non-prospect and someone with little or no chance of going north with the Mets come April.

However, Soler could very well be the biggest surprise of the spring.

The first thing to consider is that Alay Soler’s MLB debut wasn’t THAT awful. The way he left the Mets’ roster — begging out of a game against the crosstown rival Yanks, which turned out to be a 16-7 loss — left a bad taste in the mouth of every Mets fan and writer. He gave up 8 runs without getting out of the third inning, and later we found out about a calf injury that may or may not have been the cause of his demise. This horrible, shameful performance came just five days after getting shellacked by the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park — when he gave up eight runs on ten hits in just four and one-third innings. And that performance was preceded by a very ordinary 3-ER, 8-hit, 5-inning start against the Cincinnati Reds. After seeing those three starts in a row, most Mets supporters were glad to find out he suffered a season-ending injury.

Let’s rewind, and look at his 2006 season as a whole.

Alay Soler had not pitched in organized ball for over a year because of visa problems. So 2006 was his first professional season and his first season pitching in the United States. Isn’t it fair to cut the guy some slack? Let’s remember that Major League Baseball is played by human beings, and sometimes the human element can affect a man’s performance. (This is easy to forget in the age of Fantasy Baseball leagues.) Yes, Soler is a professional and being paid to play ball. But just for a moment put yourself in his shoes. Imagine leaving your home, family, and country behind to try a new job. Further picture that in the process, you are unable to perform your job for over a year, and now you must settle into a brand new country, where everything is faster and more advanced than you are used to, where you don’t understand the language, and you’re now competing at the highest level of your profession in the world. What Alay Soler attempted to do last year is akin to the best puddle-jumper pilot in Belize moving to Cocoa, Florida to man the space shuttle for NASA — after not being in the air for a year. Do you think the guy might have some difficulties taking off?

I sincerely believe that not playing competitively for a year, and adjusting to American life and American baseball cannot be downplayed. Many Soler critics point to his look of being out of shape and his expressive body language on the mound as being faults, and big reasons why he couldn’t succeed at the big-league level. Well all I can say to that is this: Luis Tiant, David Wells, Rob Dibble. When you’re going good, the emotional outbursts are defined as “intensity” or “colorful”, and chubbiness as “extra weight behind the ball” or “a little round”. When Soler was in Cuba, he could get away with being overweight and emotional, because his talent was that much better than everyone else on that tiny island. After seeing his competition firsthand in the US, Soler might very well understand that he needs to whip himself into better shape, and learn to keep a cooler head.

Further, let’s forget the negatives for a moment and look at the positives. In his first try at pro ball, he was placed at the lowest level: Port St. Lucie, A-ball. He dominated in six starts and was quickly moved up to AA Binghamton, where he made three equally impressive starts, and then was brought up to the bigs. How many pitchers, in the history of baseball, made it to MLB after making less than 10 minor league starts, and none above AA? Critics are careless to compare Soler to his Cuban predecessors Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras, who had almost immediate success in the bigs. Those two pitchers were, 1. extraordinary in every aspect; and 2. well into their 30s when they made their MLB debuts. Soler’s skillset projects a ceiling of a #4 starter, maybe a #3 — not a Cy Young candidate. And though he’s no spring chicken at age 26, remember he missed a year and only had a few years’ international experience — as opposed to the full decade plus that El Duque and Contreras had to hone and perfect their skills.

So, with less than 10 minor league games under his belt, Alay Soler came into the rabid, pressure-filled, New York City environment and managed to win his MLB debut by beating the toughest NL East rivals, the Phillies, at Shea, with an impressive 6-inning performance — one in which he very obviously was shaking with nervousness all the way through. His second start was not great — he gave up seven runs in five innings. But, he came back from that humbling loss to beat the eventual NL West Champion LA Dodgers with an impressive 6-inning, 1-ER outing, then followed it to pitch a 2-hit, complete-game shutout. He had another solid six-inning start (which was a no-decision) against a strong Baltimore Oriole lineup that included a DH, before the three-game disaster that effectively ended his MLB stint.

Up until those three games, things were looking pretty darn bright for Soler. So let’s put those games under the microscope. The first loss was to the Cincinnati Reds, a decent offensive team that finished second in the league in both homeruns and walks. Soler didn’t pitch well — he gave up eight hits in five innings — but he didn’t give up a dinger and he wasn’t the losing pitcher. Even after that so-so outing, Soler’s ERA for the year was still 3.32. Then he goes into Fenway Park to face the second-best lineup in all of baseball, in the smallest park in baseball. If you have never been to Fenway then you will not understand how difficult it can be for a rookie pitcher to walk onto the mound, never mind face a lineup with Manny and Big Papi in the middle. It’s like being inside of a toy stadium, the left field wall hovering over your shoulder, seemingly within spitting distance of the pitcher’s mound. Soler looked scared out of his mind, and that was before Lastings Milledge’s infamous misplay of a Manny Ramirez fly ball. Soler got out of the inning after that goof, but still looked shellshocked when he started the fifth inning — an inning he never escaped.

Now again, put yourself in Soler’s shoes. After getting destroyed by monsters of all shapes, colors, and sizes in Fenway, you have to go to legendary Yankee Stadium and face an All-Star lineup of batters. Would your confidence be shaken a bit? Would it be easy? Let’s assume that you already have some tightness in your calf before you get out there … are you giving yourself half a chance?

Personally, I’m going to give Alay Soler the benefit of the doubt. I assume he really was injured, and believe he may have been injured as early as the Cincinnati game. And I believe that he has the skills to be moderately successful at the MLB level, capable of occasionally throwing a gem. After a steep uphill battle, he reached the apex and then ran into a combination of bad luck and the very best hitters in the world. If he worked on his conditioning in the offseason, and attacks spring training with passion and focus, I think he has a realistic shot of winning the #5 spot in the rotation. He won’t be an ace, but I think he can develop into a reliable competitor and innings-eater along the lines of a Bobby J. Jones or Pedro Astacio. Since no one is expecting anything from him, he’ll be relieved of outside pressures — which can only help his chances. Should he succeed, he will be the surprise of the spring.